All Greek to Me – January 2015
My wife and I had a whirlwind tour of Greece in early January 2015…a New Year’s trip as well as a trip to celebrate my wife’s umpteenth birthday. When we were pondering where our adventures would take us this winter while I was visiting her in Europe, my wife and I naturally focused our attention on the warmer southern European destinations like Greece, Malta, Cyprus, and even Israel. Recent events in Israel during our advanced planning process, however, eliminated that country from our list of European winter destinations…at least for now.
During our traveling adventures, we love to explore architecture, history, local culture, and we also fancy ourselves as foodies…well, Greece, specifically Athens, met all those criteria in spades. In addition to Rome and Istanbul, cities we have both visited and thoroughly enjoyed, Athens, with the Acropolis and timeless structures, Greek history and mythology, the lively Greek culture, and of course that Greek cuisine, is one of the more fascinating cities in Europe to visit.
We took an early morning flight from Milan, Italy to Athens International Airport Eleftherios Venizelosvia, via EasyJet. A fairly modern airport, named after a Greek statesman, Athens airport was quite easy to navigate with signs in both Greek and English…and being an EU country using Euros for its currency, we didn’t have to worry about making a stop at an ATM to withdraw a different currency as we had to do for Istanbul and Prague. It was a quick 2.5 hour flight from Milan to Athens, a fairly smooth flight. Even though we “tried” to escape the chilly winter weather of northern Italy, and even with us monitoring the forecast from “weather guessers”, we were a bit disheartened to see snow as we were making our final approach into Athens…and the white stuff wasn’t confined to the mountains either. It was way past lunchtime by the time we checked into our hotel, taking us about an hour and a half to get from the airport to the hotel located in the Psiri neighborhood of Athens…with both of us quite famished and raring to taste some Greek cuisine and explore the city. I suppose our trip from the airport to the Athens city center could’ve been quicker had we not taken the X95 “Express” Bus from the airport to Syntagma Square, followed by a walk to Psiri down the crowded Ermou Street. As it was, we took the X95 bus to the city center, with its attractive fare of €5 per person, but it was “express” in name only as it must have had over 15 stops from the airport to the city center. This was of course reinforced when we told the front desk person, Vangelis, at our hotel that we took the X95…he just chuckled and acknowledged that the Express Bus is not. I guess being caught up in snarled Athens traffic didn’t help matters either. That was the only time we took the X95 bus between the city and the airport as we utilized the faster and more convenient Athens Metro system, with a special line that goes to the airport for €8 per person or €14 for two people or a round trip ticket. One caveat on the metro, we were told pick pockets abound in metro stations and the metro can get quite packed during rush hour. If you have some luggage to carry around, you might find it a challenge to get on and find space for bulky luggage (unless you catch the metro in one of its earlier stops like Monastiraki station).
To take the Athens Metro from the airport to the city center, simply take the pedestrian bridge right in front of the airport, across from the departure area towards the train tracks, purchase your tickets at one of the vending machines, validate your tickets at one of the validation machines, then walk down towards the tracks to the platform marked for Athens. The special airport metro line 3 departs every 30 minutes and takes about 30 minutes from the airport to Syntagma Square/city center. The Athens airport, located in Spata (not Sparta which is in the Peloponnese peninsula) is a good 35-40 kms away from the city center and we didn’t chance being cheated by an unscrupulous taxi driver so we avoided taking taxis anywhere and used the metro instead.
For those who want to know visa requirements for a visit to Greece, the U.S. Embassy in Greece states on their website that “US citizens traveling on blue tourist passports do not need visas for stays of up to 90 days.” They add, however, that for those with “both a tourist and diplomatic/official passport, it is recommended that you travel with both.”
We stayed in a boutique hotel located in the Psiri neighborhood, close to the Monastiraki Square. It was a good base of operations to explore the main city sights, and our suite even had a view of the Acropolis from our balcony. I think any place in the Plaka and Monastiraki, as well as Psiri or Psyri neighborhoods would be good options for your stay in Athens. Those areas are teeming with restaurants, bars, tavernas, and shops to satisfy varying tastes and moods of any tourist.
For Athens, all attractions begin and end with the Acropolis and it’s iconic Parthenon. We were fortunate enough to be in Athens on the first Sunday of the month, in this case January, when entry into the Acropolis and most of the ancient ruins in Athens were free. Admission is free every first Sunday from November 1st to March 31st, as well as select dates throughout the year. Otherwise, it is €12 per person available only through the ticket office and valid for the following attractions: Acropolis of Athens, Hadrian’s Library, Kerameikos, Museum of the Ancient Agora, north slope of Acropolis, Temple of Olympian Zeus, Roman Agora of Athens, and south slope of Acropolis.
We didn’t utilize the services of one of the guides to explore the Acropolis and didn’t think we missed anything. We heeded the advice of our hotel’s front desk manager to visit the Acropolis Museum, located at the base of the Acropolis, before we went up to the Acropolis to get an appreciation of what we would be seeing. We think that helped immensely. The Acropolis Museum was open until 2000 on weekends during the winter months and admission is €5 per person. The museum has an archaeological excavation under its foundations and it houses the ancient artifacts recovered from the Acropolis and surrounding areas. An impressive collection of relief sculptures of the Parthenon frieze, metopes, and pediments can be found on the third floor of the museum, the Parthenon Gallery. There was also an interesting and informational video, detailing the history of the Parthenon, shown on the third floor of the museum. We spent quite some time on the Acropolis, trying to soak in all the ancient Greek and Athenian history interspersed with Greek mythology. You can just picture yourself walking amidst ancient Athenians…marveling at ancient Greeks like Themistocles, possibly awed by the sight of Leonidas (I don’t even know if he set foot in Athens, but I can imagine it), Archimedes, Pythagoras, Euripides, Sophocles, Hippocrates, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Pericles…and the list goes on. Figures and events from recent books and movies like “Gates of Fire”, “300”, “300: Rise of an Empire”, and even “Immortals” all came alive.
By the time we explored the Acropolis (with the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Propylaea, Temple of Nike, and Monument to Agrippa), with multiple pictures of the Parthenon and other structures from varied angles, it was time to descend and explore the Odeon of Herodes Atticus as well as the Theater of Dionysos, after spending some time on Hill of Ares taking yet more pictures of the Acropolis. We walked down to see the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch…and it was time for a late lunch (a relative term since Greeks apparently eat lunch at around 1400 and dinner at 2100) in Plaka. By the time we finished our late lunch, the “free” archaeological sites were closed for the day, which was at 1500. The following day, a Monday, we were off to Delphi to seek guidance from the Oracle…no, not Larry Ellison.
We were also able to visit Syntagma or the Hellenic Parliament to witness their version of the Changing of the Guard Ceremony over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I found their drill and ceremony a tad bizarre with the guards’ uniform including a skirt, with their high stepping marches, ever so haltingly at times, scraping the steel soled and bonneted shoes on the pavement as they take their assigned positions on each side of the tomb. Weird…just weird. But as my wife said, it must be an honor for those guards to represent their unit and their country.
We read some great things about the Athens Free Walking Tour and exchanged emails with George who was extremely helpful in assisting us with deconflicting our planned itinerary, which included a day trip to Delphi and a 3-day trip to Santorini. Unfortunately, we were not able to fit the free tour, which started at 1000 in the morning in front of the Acropolis Museum. The free tour by knowledgeable guides covers Hadrian’s Arch, Temple of Zeus, Kalimarmaro Stadium, Zappeion, Monastiraki markets, Parliament & Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Hill of Ares, Acropolis (but does not enter the Acropolis which requires an entrance fee), and the Roman and Greek agoras.
Our guide to Delphi informed us that when the government started excavations for the metro, the authorities discovered ancient sites in some of the metro stops. These ancient sites have been preserved and if you find yourself in an underground metro station, look around for some excavations. We saw this at Monastiraki and Syntagma Metro stations. Apparently, the ancient Athenians and subsequent residents just built on top of the ancient sites, with really little to no regard for preservation.
– Greeks we came in contact with, despite being in the midst of a struggling economy, with high unemployment, and hardships imposed by crippling austerity measures (with higher taxes, pay cuts, and slashed government spending) as dictated by the $147 billion EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout from 2010, remain sanguine about daily life and the future. The recent resounding victory, however, of the anti-austerity Syriza party in the January election further clouds the economic future of Greece and adds unwelcome uncertainty.
– Most of the younger generation of Athenians (as well as those in Santorini) we came in contact with (granted most of them were in service-oriented capacity), and I am a bit hesitant to generalize this for other areas of Greece not as exposed to tourism, spoke English well and were impressed at our attempts to learn some cursory Greek phrases. Efharisto poli!
– We did witness some young kids, barely into their teens if at all, trying to make money by playing various instruments, mainly the accordion, with some clearly needing some music lessons, on the streets and even on the metro rail cars. One young girl in particular would make it a point to eyeball you while she plays the accordion, badly I might add, in her attempts at guilting you into giving her some money…didn’t work with us though.
– Much like Istanbul, Athens had its fair share of feral cats and stray dogs roaming around the city and even on the Acropolis grounds.
– The 2004 Summer Olympic Games showcased Athens to the rest of the world and ushered in new construction and some much needed updates and improvement to existing infrastructure, to include the new airport and the metro system. However, one of the most expensive Olympic Games to date, while bringing international glory to Athens and Greece, may have augured the country’s economic decline leading to the EU/IMF bailout.
– Another wonderful and tasty M&M travel adventure in the books! We both think that Athens, along with Rome and Istanbul, belongs in the pantheon of historic European cities worth a visit. It’s a pity we didn’t have enough time to visit other sites…I was beginning to get the hang of Greek language and culture, and was even getting the hang of reading Greek words so those signs would not be “all Greek to me”. Maybe on a future visit, we can explore other sites such as Cape Sounio, Mycenae, Meteora, Olympia, and Thermopylae.
– We found quite a bit of similarities and parallels between the Greek cuisine and the Turkish cuisine, specifically what we sampled in Istanbul on a previous visit. The Istanbullus had simit and the Athenians had koulouri, a similar thin bread ring encrusted with toasted sesame seeds that were widely available in the streets and bakeries in Athens. Of course you’ve heard of the Turkish Delights or lokum…well, the Greeks had what they call Greek delights or loukoumi. And who can forget the shish kebaps in Turkey, called souvlaki in Greece. I suppose this intermingling of cuisines was inevitable due to the shared border between Greece and Turkey, not to mention the Turks conquering Greece in the mid-15th century, and the countless number of immigrants from each country settling in the other country, bringing with them old traditions and recipes from their homeland. Whatever the case may be, a hungry diner emerges the winner. – We sampled some sweets from Ariston bakery, an institution in Athens that opened in 1910. I read about Ariston on Rick Steves’ guidebook but didn’t really know what they were famous for, until the person manning the cashier machine offered us some free kourou pies, or buttery, flaky pies with fresh feta cheese filling. Quite yummy…or as they say in Greek, poli nostimo.
– While walking along Souvlaki Row northeast from Monastiraki Square, we were trying to decide where to sample some gyro and souvlaki…well, Vangelis from O Thanasis pretty much made the decision for us. Short of accosting us, Vangelis (or Angelo as he is also known by) charmed an older man out of a table on the first floor and we immediately found ourselves seated in this Athens institution, ready to order our lunch…and the ebullient Vangelis kept the show going. The souvlaki I had was delicious but my wife thought her pita kebab was just OK.
– Other standout restaurants we recommend are Ydria in Plaka neighborhood and Lithos in Psiri neighborhood. Dia Tafta in Monastiraki was just OK, we thought.